WASHINGTON — Democrats are refocusing their message on President Joe Biden's Build Back Better bill in response to inflation concerns from voters and key centrist lawmakers as Congress moves closer to final votes on the massive spending package.
The White House and Democratic leaders have rebranded the legislation as an antidote to widespread price hikes, arguing that it would lower the cost of prescription drugs, child care and overall expenses related to raising families.
"Want to fight inflation? Support Build Back Better," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Tuesday.
The measure calls for spending $1.75 trillion over a decade on a variety of Democratic priorities, from health care subsidies to clean energy. It would give the government the power to negotiate prices for certain medicines, subsidize child care and extend cash payments for most parents with children under 18.
Democrats aim to cover the cost of the social safety net package through taxes on corporations and more money for IRS enforcement. They also insist that the legislation would be fully paid for ahead of a Congressional Budget Office analysis expected this week.
But some Democratic moderates say they're more worried that the increased costs would hit numerous sectors of the economy.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who has been sounding the alarm about inflation for months, declined to say Monday whether the legislation addresses his concerns.
He told reporters that "everyone's seeing" the impacts of rising inflation. "There's no one pushing back saying, 'Oh, this is just a fluke, it's going to fly by in no time at all,'" Manchin said of his Democratic colleagues. "We've gone past that."
Consumer prices jumped by 6.2 percent last month, the biggest inflation surge in more than 30 years. About half of Americans overall blame Biden for rising costs, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week.
Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to create political pain for Democrats over inflation and other economic concerns. They continued to argue Tuesday that the legislation would worsen inflation, citing climate policies that they say would raise fossil fuel energy costs.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., the chair of the Senate GOP campaign arm, predicted that inflation would end up haunting Democrats.
"This is going to be devastating for them," Scott said. "It's devastating to poor families and people on fixed income. It's going to really hurt the Democrats."
Democrats consistently cite a letter by 17 Nobel laureates in economics who say the Build Back Better bill would "ease longer-term inflationary pressures" by investing in economic capacity and nudging Americans to "participate productively in the economy."
They also refer to recent remarks by Larry Summers, a top economist in the Clinton and Obama administrations, who said Sunday on CNN that the infrastructure and Build Back Better plans are unlikely to aggravate inflation. He argued that in contrast to the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief law from March, the two other bills "have tax increases that cover the expenditures and in addition include significant public investments that will raise the potential of the economy to produce more, which will lead to further tax revenue."
Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., said the analysis from Summers, who has criticized some of Biden's proposals, such as the Covid-19 rescue package, was "the most encouraging report I'd heard" when it comes to easing fears about the bill and inflation.
Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said provisions like lowering the cost of prescription drug prices "helps to tamp inflation pressures." He said his proposed billionaires tax would be "money in the coffers of the federal government."
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said inflation is "a legit concern" that is "being addressed" in the Build Back Better package with proposals to lower costs for health care and education.
"We think there's provisions in there that would address people's concerns," he said.
In the House, which could vote on the social safety net bill as early as this week, Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Wash., cited money for housing and child care as cost-cutters.
"I talked to a restaurant owner who hired someone, and they said they couldn't afford to live anywhere near the restaurant, so they can't take that job. Housing is a real issue. Child care is an issue. So Build Back Better plays a key role," said DelBene, the chair of the moderate New Democrat Coalition.
Some economists, however, doubt that the proposal would help inflation in the near term.
"I just think we're kidding ourselves if we think — OK, you pass legislation like this, it takes time to implement, it takes time for programs to be set up, changes to be made — that that's going to fix the inflation we're dealing with, right here and now at the end of 2021," said David Beckworth, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.
Beckworth argued that the $1.75 trillion measure wouldn't tip the scale in either direction.
"If you look at what's really driving the inflation today ... I think it's much more of a pure pandemic effect," he said. "It's driven by a change in spending habits caused by the pandemic. And as the pandemic ends, those things are going to fade."